Internet Archive is Ending National Emergency Library Program

Posted on June 14, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud with 17 Comments

In the wake of legal pressure, the Internet Archive said this week it would stop lending books to people without library access during the pandemic.

“The National Emergency Library will close on June 16, rather than June 30, returning to traditional controlled digital lending,” the Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle writes. “We moved up our schedule because four commercial publishers chose to sue Internet Archive during a global pandemic … The complaint attacks the concept of any library owning and lending digital books, challenging the very idea of what a library is in the digital world.”

Those four publishers, in case you’re interested in boycotting them, are Hachette, HarperCollins, John Wiley & Sons. and Penguin Random House. (And it’s worth pointing out that three of the four—Hachette, HarperCollins, and Penguin—previously illegally colluded with Apple to raise eBooks prices in the United States and Europe. All were found guilty or quickly settled their cases in both jurisdictions.)

They, along with the Association of American Publishers, previously argued that the Internet Archive’s temporary policy of providing disadvantaged pandemic sufferers with a way to borrow books digitally infringed on the “intellectual investment of authors and the financial investment of publishers.” Primarily the latter, one imagines.

But what did the Internet Archive really do?

In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic was closing businesses, and triggering stay-at-home orders worldwide, the Internet Archive announced that it was temporarily lifting its restrictions on digital book lending—which involve making each scanned book available to one person at a time for up to 14 days—so that users, unable to borrow books from brick-and-mortar libraries, would have another avenue for reading.

At issue is the legal gray area in which the Internet Archive has scanned and made available its 1.3 million book collection: Unlike traditional libraries, which license books from publishers, the Internet Archive relies on book donations from individuals. It then scans the books and makes them available to one person at a time.

I took advantage of this service last summer while we were on our home swap when I borrowed two early 1990s-era books about COM from the Archive for research purposes while I was writing the Programming Windows series. The Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine was (still is) also a vital resource for this research.

As the author of about 30 books, and as someone who has repeatedly experienced the theft of the content I create, I fully support this service since, like a real library, it provides a way for users to experience books they either can’t afford. Or are, as in my situation, out of print and hard to find in physical form. In fact, I’m pleased to see that the Internet Archive has digitized several of my print books, meaning that they will live in digital form forever.

Many authors of more traditional books also support this effort, though many do not, of course. And that’s how the Association of American Publishers got involved.

“All they’ve done is scan a lot of books and put them on the internet, which makes them no different from any other piracy site,” Mary Rasenberger of the Authors Guild told the New York Times. “If you can get anything that you want that’s on [the] Internet Archive for free, why are you going to buy an e-book?”

Here’s how it’s different: Unlike actual piracy sites, the Internet Archive is a non-profit organization whose stated goal is to build a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. And here’s why: It doesn’t provide any content to any person for free indefinitely.

You may disagree. But it’s an interesting debate.

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Comments (23)

23 responses to “Internet Archive is Ending National Emergency Library Program”

  1. Lauren Glenn

    Whether I disagree or not is not the case. If you take my content without permission and distribute it without compensation to me, then it would be like having a file share of movies on your computer and letting anyone watch them on demand. If they had permission from the publishers, then that's different obviously.


    They took someone else's work and are lending it to someone else without permission. It's not like I let you borrow my paperback book and you give it back.... or used video games....


    But this is like that line I used to hear while watching sports: "rebroadcasting without the express written consent of Major League Baseball is prohibited." It doesn't matter your intentions if you don't have permission.

    • lwetzel

      In reply to alissa914:

      With this kind of logic, a person that buys a book and then gives it as a gift is doing it without the authors permission. How many books would not be sold if we all had to stick to that?

    • Paul Thurrott

      It's a lot more nuanced. In any purported crime, there is the notion of intent and motive. In this case, the Internet Archive has done something that publishers refuse to do: Digitize books that are not available digitally and then make them available for free lending only, not for free to keep, like a library. The intent is not to defraud or steal, it is to fill a very real void and provide access to books to those without enough money to buy them, often books that are otherwise unavailable for lending. If this is legally untenable, then we need to abolish libraries immediately and go from there. Also, if this is a crime, so is me giving you a book I already read. I await the secret police. Where do we draw the line? That's why I said this was a debate. We may see things very clearly on whatever side the debate, but it is in fact a debate. It's not clear.
      • lvthunder

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        When you go to the library the library can't have 50 people reading the same book at the same time. With the way this was working you could. That's a big difference. I'm fine with the system they have now where there is a limit based on how many copies of the book the library has.


        There is intent here. The system was working when they stuck to the number of copies they owned. When they decided to lift those restrictions is where the trouble starts. They clearly intended more people to read these books at the same time.

    • jim_vernon

      In reply to alissa914:

      I don't need your permission to lend someone to someone after I bought it from you.


      That said, it's only mildly less convenient for people got find these books from other sources for free, so these publishers haven't done anything except gain some ill-will from those of us who do buy books.


      And for kicks, I just donated to the Internet Archive.

  2. Magicwin31

    How about this one, if they want to ask about the ebook, make it accessible as an ebook. The amount of books I've tried to find AND buy digitally is sad and most of the time it went out of print but never digitally added. Their excuse is just that, an excuse.

  3. jwpear

    If lending someone a book on a temporary basis is piracy, we need to shut down our libraries immediately! Libraries are completely counter to the society's ability to further corporate greed and limit information and knowledge acquisition to the select privileged. They must be stopped!

    • Paul Thurrott

      Right. I've also bought used books from libraries. More crimes!
    • mrkirbs

      In reply to jwpear:

      The issue is that Internet Archive took one copy of a book that they owned, and made it available in greater than one copies at a time. That is explicitly not how a library operates, and why the publishers sued.

      • jwpear

        In reply to MrKirbs:

        I understand. I was being overly sarcastic to make a point.


        Outside of our elders, many of us are in a time that we've never experienced. An unprecedented number have lost their jobs, taken pay or hour cuts, or been told the future of their employer is uncertain. I question just how many are buying books during this time given the situation. I'm not sure the publishers are loosing money they weren't already losing.


        In my mind, the publishers have simply shown how cold-hearted and greedy they are. Puts them in the same category as cable companies and music studios. Is it really necessary for the publishers to sue the IA? It feels like this is more about an opportunity to take a shot at libraries and digital lending.


        Of course, I'm not saying I want to see authors and artists cheated out of their ability to earn a living.

      • jimchamplin

        In reply to MrKirbs:

        Maybe it’s simply time for the idea that the digital world needs to be forced to follow the rules of physical reality to die in a housefire.

      • bshaw

        In reply to MrKirbs:

        "The issue is that Internet Archive took one copy of a book that they owned, and made it available in greater than one copies at a time."


        But that is not what the article is saying, just the opposite, "It then scans the books and makes them available to one person at a time."


        In other words, if I have a copy of a physical book, I can lend it to one friend at a time. How is a digital copy different?

        • wright_is

          In reply to BShaw:
          But that is not what the article is saying, just the opposite, "It then scans the books and makes them available to one person at a time."

          Here, at the beginning:

          “The National Emergency Library will close on June 16, rather than June 30, returning to traditional controlled digital lending,” the Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle writes

          normally, they do 1 copy - 1 reader at a time. For the pandemic, they drop that restriction. Now they are paying the price of greedy publishers.

          On the other hand, a friend of mine wrote hist first book earlier this year (Time Fixer, the Blake Berman Chronicles by John Vella) and in the first week of lockdown in the UK, he gave it away for free on Amazon (Kindle edition) and again a couple of weeks later (Amazon won't let you do a permanent free promotion).

          (We are currently busy working on the sequel, I am doing editing duties again, as I did on the original.)

          I note it is back up to $3.99 now:



  4. wapembe

    I have used the archive services in the past when info I wanted was not available for purchase. I borrowed the book for a few days then returned it to the archive. Pretty simple. I would have bought a digital copy of the book if possible. It would be nice if the publishers could move forward but they wont. They are stuck in an outdated business paradigm and just will not modernize. It is a shame to see things like this happen.

    • jwpear

      In reply to wapembe:

      I agree. This is one of my biggest frustration's with the publishing industry. I want a book, but it is no longer in print and they haven't digitized.

      • Paul Thurrott

        Yes. As many probably know, I purchased dozens of used paper books from Amazon last year for that article series. Would much rather have them digitally, which by the way would prevent me from reselling them. Also brings up a side issue that anyone siding with the publishers should consider: I buy a book and then *sell* it used; doesn't that harm them? They don't see a cent of the resale. Lending books for free, especially during a pandemic, is arguably a no-harm crime. And thus wouldn't be punished. What's really happening here is that the publishers have money and lawyers, and thus they can afford to withstand a lawsuit in ways the Internet Archive cannot.
        • lvthunder

          In reply to paul-thurrott:

          Maybe the Internet Archive should have went to these publishers first and made an agreement with them before committing the crime. Ypu say this is a no-harm crime. How do you know this? Sure the books you were looking for was old, but was that the case for everything in the library?

  5. navarac

    At least the Library were trying to help during difficult times (Covid Pandemic). Of course greedy, self-serving corporations would be put out losing a few dollars. Shame if people could benefit (sacastic).

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